I slowly waved my hand in front of my face in the darkness, but saw nothing. The Panamanian night enveloped us all in a shroud of tangled mangrove roots. Somewhere ahead, I knew the steep river bank would launch straight up from the oily water, but all I could do was slowly feel my way between the outstretched roots.
Five minutes earlier, I had stepped blindly from the ramp of a lumbering Chinook helicopter, following my three infantry scouts into the black night. Thirty feet above the dark water of the Shagris River, I was the last member out of the bird.
My entry into the water had been less than graceful and the chemlight attached to my chest was ripped from its lanyard. I had barely surfaced when I glanced around, trying in vain to locate the other scouts. I saw nothing and heard no one.
We’d each in turn stepped into the night sky with a two second lag between us. How on Earth had we been separated? Rather than ponder this further, though, I struck out to my right, knowing that the shoreline should lie roughly a hundred yards in that direction.
It was when my hands first struck the mangrove roots that I began to get pissed. If you’ve ever seen these fantastic trees, you’ll understand how difficult a task it would be to swim/crawl through their roots. Now imagine having a rucksack on your back, with gear and camouflage netting grabbing onto anything and everything imaginable as you moved. It took nearly ten minutes to navigate through the roots until my hand impacted the warm, squishy mud of the bank.
Now I was stuck. Feeling upward, I realized the bank was far taller than me, probably extending five feet over my head when fully standing. And it was a complete drop-off from the tangled jungle above. On top of that, the waterproof liner of my rucksack had ruptured on impact with the water. So now, my gear had doubled its weight with muddy jungle water. There was no way I could get out, and I hesitated to retrace my way through the mangroves. So, I sat there in the waist-deep water, my mind nicely reminding me of the population of cayman alligators that called this river their home.
Nearly three hours later, as the sun lightened the Central American sky and the dripping leaves of the encompassing jungle became visible, my team “rescued me.” As a group, they had remained together throughout the night. That I had been separated, we later discovered, was due to the speed of the current at precisely the spot I had jumped from the helicopter. The rest of the team had ended up in the merging (and much faster) waters of a tributary to the big river. Conversely, I had landed in an eddy, actually pushing me up-river several hundred yards. So, by the time we all got to shore, I was literally a quarter-mile of darkness away from them.
So, why do I tell you this story? Because it was one of the earliest examples of my realization of trust and empowerment I encountered as a young leader. At 22, I was by far the oldest of the bunch. I had three teenaged scouts under my command, and I was forced by the situation to completely rely on their abilities, judgement, and training without direction from me.
When I was finally hoisted out of the muddy water and had an opportunity to regroup and get debriefed by my soldiers, I was immensely proud. Not only had they remained together and not panicked at the loss of their leader. They had reached the objective, conducted the desired reconnaissance just as rehearsed before returning to find me. That I was not their first objective when they reached shore indicated their own trust in me to survive on my own until such time as we could regroup.
As leaders, we need to trust that the team we have built, and the training we have provided will suffice when it is needed. After all, leaders are meant to provide guidance to the point of competence, and then step out of the way. Empower your troops, and they will inevitably surprise you, just as my guys did on the Shagris River nearly two decades ago.